This version of Christa Glennie Seychew’s piece on Patrick Lango didn’t make it into the latest issue of edible Buffalo due to space. Please enjoy this extended version of the delicious tale of one WNY’s local heroes and why his yogurt may be the best yogurt on the planet….
Tall, lanky, and dressed like your favorite literature professor, Patrick Lango, farmer, maker of artisanal dairy products and enthusiastic food radical, stands huddled over his wares. Snowflakes land on the shoulders of his tweed suit coat and bounce from the lenses of his tortoiseshell rimmed glasses. The Elmwood Bidwell Farmer’s Market (where he sells his artfully-crafted yogurts, custards and dairy drinks) is open until Christmas, but none of the other regular vendors are braving the bracing December wind and below average temperatures. “No ice,” he says, referring to why it is “a no-brainer” for him to be standing on a barren snow covered urban parkway selling glass jars of ultra-thick yogurt, “in the winter I don’t have to haul all of that ice to keep my stuff cold; this is nature’s refrigerator.” Plus, his customers are counting on him.
What many locals don’t realize as they pull quaint little jars of White Cow Dairy’s yogurt from the coolers of local supermarkets, is that these vessels of luscious, perfectly tangy, dairy goodness are treasures that people–especially foodies–across our great nation would gladly give an arm for. It seems that every month one of Lango’s fine products springs up from the pages of a glossy food magazine, respected newspaper or website. What is so special about this yogurt, after all? And, how is it that this man (along with his family and a handful of happy cows) has put East Otto, NY on the map? Let me tell you. Quality. Simplicity. Integrity. These are the three ingredients that make Patrick Lango a Local Hero.
Lango was raised on a dairy farm situated on property in the Town of Boston where his family had been farming since 1908. Back then, Lango says of his youth, dairy farming still made sense. When his father passed away, the family continued to farm, but in the 70s and 80s the family tried something new, selling off the dairy operation and focusing on grass-fed beef. During this time, Lango was out in the world, living his own life, earning a living off the farm. But in the late 80s, the family structure shifted and Lango’s mother asked him to return to the farm to help them prioritize. “She made me promise we wouldn’t give up the farm,” he says solemnly.
They chose to re-locate the farm, but to return to dairying. It made sense; the family had always been able to pay their bills as dairy farmers. What they didn’t realize was that the business had changed drastically. “We crunched the numbers with a past perspective,” Lango says.
“It used to be that little farms would work together cooperatively to sell their milk—that way we could all get a decent price. Laws were put in place to support these cooperatives, to give the farmers some leverage and the ability to make a living. But big business studied these regulations and pretended to be cooperatives. They set the price, and using all of the laws originally intended to help farmers stay alive, they seized control of the dairy industry and put farmers in a beholden position. Do you realize that the wholesale price for milk today is only marginally different than the price in 1969?”
Under the old cooperative laws, they are required to collect milk from small farms. But big milk business doesn’t want to go from small farm to small farm. The small family farms aren’t producing a high volume; they’re largely inefficient and full of family politics. The milk companies would rather deal with fewer farmers, and only big, industrial high-volume farmers could survive because they were given volume incentives. I’ve watched really, really fine farms disappear, and as farmers, you can’t cry about it and you can’t work our way out of it.”
We didn’t realize that we would have no control over the price. As dairy farmers we worked hard, seven days a week, and then we’d get this little check in mail and we’d have to wonder what we were doing all of that work for. We were winning awards and accolades for our milk, but we couldn’t collect salaries, and we’d sell heifers to pay our taxes.”
On New Year’s Eve of 2001, Lango and his wife traveled to New York to have dinner with some friends. They arrived to see their good friends, a group of educated professionals, gathered around the table of a top-notch restaurant laden with fine food and good wine. Lango casually presented his offering for the evening, a bottle of fresh milk from the farm. “They went crazy,” he says. “Nobody wanted to talk about the wine or anything else; they all wanted to talk about the milk. They’d never had milk that tasted so good, and they were upset that all milk wasn’t like this. ‘What can you do about this, Pat,’ they’d ask me, ‘how can we fix this?’ So I told them all about the dairy business, and the cows, and the grass, and they looked at me and said, ‘Let’s fix it, let’s change the friggin’ world!’”.
Reinvigorated through his friends’ enthusiasm, Lango returned to his farm with a renewed passion to make things work. “I fought the system and worked with a cooperative for a long time, and I’m glad for that. I learned a lot, and we made really high-quality milk. But, how do survive? How do you raise a family in this wonderful setting? How do you make it work? And the answer is—you don’t. You have to go around it, above it and underneath it. The answer is: you have to make food.”
Searching through 19th century cookbooks, Lango started doing some experimentation. “You can make more types of food from milk that you can from any other substance. Once I started making food from milk, it was like I opened the door to the wardrobe and discovered Narnia. We went through [the cookbooks], trying out recipes from when people were selling dairy products that they made themselves. I wanted to know what they were making and how they were making it. I began perfecting [the recipes] one by one. You know, ‘B is for butter’ and so on. When I got to “Y”, when I got to ‘yogurt’, I realized how fantastic a food yogurt is! It’s flexible, and that makes it diverse, and it is so good for you. Plus, with yogurt, well, one gallon of milk makes one gallon of yogurt, so there’s no waste [as there is with cheese making].”
From there, Lango did a little homegrown research and development. “I’d set up with this little group of folks in the back room at Alice Arlo’s place [The Concord General Store]. They signed waivers and we’d taste products and discuss sizes and packaging with them until we felt like we had it right. The next step was to raise the money and install a licensed dairy kitchen here on the farm.”
Throughout this process, Lango would send test batches of various products off to Murray’s in New York (Murray’s Cheese Shop has long been considered the American authority on all things cheese. Opened in NYC in 1940, Murray’s boasts one of the most diverse selections of artisanal cheeses in the U.S.). “They were very excited about my recipes and couldn’t wait until I had something that they could put on the shelves.” Lango has since been invited by Murray’s, on numerous occasions, to teach classes to the public on the making of fresh dairy foods. That is where he met author Anne Mendelson, who mentions Lango in her recently released book, Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages (Knopf, 2008).
The simplicity of Lango’s ‘Y is for yogurt’ tale could be considered misleading. Honored by Slow Food USA and other distinguished organizations, White Cow’s yogurt “style” is unique to the U.S. and carries a regional flavor profile, sweetened with just a hint of New York’s premium maple syrup. The fruit-enhanced yogurts vary by season and the eggy custards are a big hit–especially the chocolate blend. Perhaps most versatile of all are the savory, extra thick sauces that improve potatoes, chicken and a million other things, boasting big flavors from locally harvested ramps, leeks and chiles. On occasion, early morning Bidwell shoppers will find a few select jars of mascarpone or crème fraiche mixed in with Lango’s usual offerings. “I’d like to be able to do soft cheeses—robiola, quark,” he says. “The trick is to simultaneously produce everything you’re already producing and add more. We’ll get there.”
Today, Lango is speaking to me from his dairy kitchen where a storm has knocked the phone wires from the building. The repairs, made by Lango himself, have slowed his ability to prepare and bottle today’s yogurt. “When people ask me why [my product] tastes so good, the answer is, I do as little as possible. This process is really about bringing out the character of the milk. If you start with great milk; you’ll get a great food.” He pauses. “That is—if you don’t mess with it.”